Directed by James DeMonaco
The world encapsulated in James DeMonaco’s The Purge is a frightening one. Human empathy is non-existent as roving bands of marauders utilize a government sanctioned event to “cleanse” mankind of the impoverished and homeless. Those unable to defend themselves from what has become an accepted part of American life are rendered helpless as citizens feel an obligation to vent their frustrations in the form of murder. The impact of the annual Purge is staggering, with unemployment dropping to below 1% and crime being almost entirely eradicated; this sacrifice of compassion has created a seemingly utopian society cultivated by the most reprehensible of acts. It’s irony at its finest.
For one family, however, this acceptance of what is quickly revealed to be a violent form of class warfare is called into question as they find themselves on the receiving end of this once-a-year event. As a peddler of high-tech security systems employed by the entire neighborhood, family man James Sandin, played by Ethan Hawke, settles in with his family – wife Mary, played by Lena Headey, and children Zoey and Charlie – for the annual Purge. After Charlie witnesses a homeless man calling for help on the family’s surveillance camera, he disables the security system to let him in, unwillingly unleashing the wrath of a team of masked invaders who want to claim him for themselves.
Despite its ludicrous premise, The Purge is a rather relevant film within the context of the current political landscape, yet with a far more sadistic bent. Blind acceptance of the annual Purge simply because it makes America a better – and safer – country serves as a loose metaphor for modern security theater; it doesn’t matter if you’re inconvenienced because America is better off for it, human decency be damned. Of course, we have the benefit of horrible acts committed on our homeland to justify this, whereas DeMonaco provides no suitable explanation for the implementation of this annual event beyond a few brief sound bites that suggest a nation rife with crime, unemployment, and economic distress can only be fixed through violence.
The biggest problem with the film is the notion that we’re supposed to believe that the people committing heinous acts during the Purge would ONLY commit these acts during this sanctioned event; people generally don’t kill other people not because it’s illegal, but because it’s a terrible thing to do. There’s no context behind their actions beyond government approval and an exceedingly dim and nihilistic view of humanity as a whole; just because the government says it’s acceptable doesn’t mean that it is. The Sandins are accepting of the Purge because it makes them safer, and it’s only when they feel the event’s violent consequences do they fully realize that killing people under the illusion of safety is just too damned ironic to view as an acceptable practice. Without the aid of some sort of background to inform these characters and their decisions, they’re just like everyone else: devoid of empathy and victims of circumstance.
As a result, it’s difficult to show any sort of concern for their plight. Contrast this with the nameless antagonist, portrayed with sinister glee by Rhys Wakefield and the aid of a genuinely creepy yet contrived mask. His character works because we really don’t need to know anything more about him or his cronies beyond the fact that they believe they’re fulfilling their civic duty by dispatching the homeless; but the movie isn’t about them, it’s about the Sandins and how they respond to this horrific ordeal. Sure, they grow and have a change of heart, but up until that point, they’re nothing more than passive participants in the slaughter of innocent victims. Why should we care about them? When you’re trying to make a point about class warfare, having your protagonists serve as a metaphor for the 1% isn’t the best way to make us root for them, poorly constructed character arcs and changes of heart be damned.
The thin characters and stupid decisions notwithstanding, we wouldn’t have the genuinely exciting third act without them. Both our heroes and intruders crisscross through the darkened halls, taking a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach before culminating in a hyper-violent and frenetic duel between James and two masked assailants in a game room that will leave you wondering why the rest of the movie didn’t follow this approach. It’s a bright moment in an otherwise dark and tedious film, filled with muddled metaphor and weak attempts at subtext that serve as little more than a tenuous setup for a mostly generic home invasion thriller supported solely by a ridiculous concept that is never fully realized.
2 out of 5